Morning commuter traffic in Los Angeles
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Morning commuter traffic in Los Angeles
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Fill'Er Up (Less Often)

The average American drives about 13,500 miles each year — or at least did before the coronavirus lockdown changed everything. Gas prices fell to historic lows, but travel restrictions also brought a surge in the purchase of RVs and second cars for road trips and commutes, which means fuel efficiency remains of critical importance. Squeezing more miles out of every gallon means you'll spend less money on fuel while helping conserve a limited natural resource and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that play a role in climate change. Cheapism has identified several ways drivers can get more miles to the gallon. 

Related: 16 Ways Driving Has Changed in the Past 50 Years

miles per gallon
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You Can't Manage What You Don't Measure

An important starting point is tracking your current miles per gallon. There are apps for this, but it's a simple back-of-the-napkin calculation. After filling up at the pump, save the receipt and record the current odometer reading. At the next fill up, divide the miles driven since the last reading by the gallons pumped to determine the mpg. Do this several times to find the average.

Commuting: Auto Variety
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Maintain Zen

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that aggressive driving lowers gas mileage by up to 33% on the highway and 5% in the city. Take a deep breath and focus on accelerating and braking slowly and staying at or under the speed limit. Using cruise control may help, as it limits unnecessary braking and accelerating. 

Related: How to Stay Safe From Road Rage, Including Your Own

Lose Excess Weight
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Lose Excess Weight

The more weight the engine has to move, the more gas it consumes. Spend an afternoon cleaning out the trunk and getting rid of any other superfluous weight. If the vehicle has removable seats that are used rarely, consider storing them in the garage.

Reduce Drag
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Reduce Drag

Likewise, roof racks and other storage accessories will increase drag on your vehicle when you're driving. If you're not actually using them, remove them to keep you car as aerodynamic as possible. This goes for bike and ski racks, too. And if you're driving a pickup, keeping the tailgate up appears to improve mileage, not lowering it, something that will come as a surprise to many pickup drivers

Related: 33 Greatest American Trucks of All Time

Avoid Traffic
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Avoid Traffic

Traffic is more than just a nuisance — idling cars burn gas and waste money. Some new, upmarket cars address this problem by switching off the engine when the car comes to a stop and restarting it automatically when the gas pedal is depressed. But this is a luxury many drivers can't afford. Instead, opt for side roads when the highway is congested or find a way to avoid the rush hour all together. Join a gym near work and arrive an hour early to work out and shower, or find a social event or professional development opportunity held after work several times a week.

Related: The Best and Worst Cities in America for Driving

checking tire pressure
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Check and Sustain Proper Tire Pressure

Underinflated tires decrease fuel efficiency and are downright dangerous, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimating that tire failure results in 11,000 crashes a year. Maintaining proper tire pressure (look inside the vehicle's door or in the owner's manual) is the most important part of tire safety, the safety experts say. It's a concern especially during the hot summer months when added heat can lead to blowouts and tread separations. For every 1 psi (pounds per square inch) below the recommended tire pressure, fuel efficiency decreases by 0.3%. This is a per-tire calculation, meaning if all four tires are under-inflated the overall loss can be significant.

Related: Tire Installation Cost Comparison: What's the Best Place to Get New Tires?

Check the Alignment
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Check the Alignment

Owners should check tire alignment every few years. If the alignment is off, the wheels will hit the road at odd angles, causing unbalanced wear that decreases their lifespan and lowers fuel efficiency. An alignment check and adjustment cost about $75.

Related: 11 Ways Costco Can Save You Money on Your Car

Stay Comfortable
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Stay Comfortable

When it's hot out, the windows go down or the AC is turned on. Both decrease fuel efficiency, but it's a price most drivers are happy to pay. Which is worse on the wallet? The website MythBusters put the quandary to a test and found that down windows burned up less fuel than air conditioning. On the other hand, Edmunds.com found no significant difference between using the AC and rolling down windows. The jury is still out, but a good rule of thumb is to open windows when driving slowly (below 40 mph) and use the forced cool air while driving at higher speeds. Extra tip: Cooling off the car first with open windows means the AC won't have to work as hard once it's turned on.

Shift Early
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Shift Early

Drivers whose cars have manual transmission can take advantage of the added control to decrease fuel consumption. By shifting to a higher gear as early as possible, the engine turns slower and uses less gasoline. The downside of this tactic is that the vehicle won't accelerate as quickly.

driving to the beach
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Drive on Island Time

Anyone who has driven in Hawaii knows that "island time" means driving at or below the speed limit, even when it's 45 mph. Drivers on the mainland who want to save on gas should follow suit. Fuel efficiency starts to drop off drastically when driving above 50 mph. The Department of Energy estimates that each 5 mph above 50 is equivalent to paying an extra 7% for each gallon of gas. Cruise control is a good way to keep speed in check.

Respect Hills
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Respect Hills

When climbing a hill, putting the pedal to the metal can push miles per gallon down to the single digits. Focus on maintaining, rather than increasing, speed and accept that it's okay to go slightly slower on the way up.

Remember Newton
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Remember Newton

After cresting a hill, use the power of gravity to go as far as possible. Coasting means infinite miles per gallon. The news organization Mother Jones reports on one man who takes coasting to the extreme. In a demonstration ride, he exited a freeway at 50 mph, turned off the engine, and traveled more than mile using the pent-up energy.

Regular Gas Will Do
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Regular Gas Will Do

Some people occasionally treat their vehicle to a tank of premium gasoline, but automotive experts at Edmunds.com say that's a waste of money. At one time, premium gas contained engine-cleaning additives that regular gas did not, but subsequent regulation has made standard gasoline just as good. Even drivers whose vehicles ostensibly need premium, according to the manufacturer's recommendation, can switch to regular with no ill effects and save money.

Related: 80 Things You Don't Need to Buy

car gas tank
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Check Your Gas Cap

It's important to ensure your gas cap fits snugly when you put it back after fueling, and that its seals are not damaged or worn out. Otherwise your gas can evaporate into the atmosphere, where it benefits no one. One clue your gas cap might be failing: The vehicle's check engine light is on. A bad cap can affect a vehicle's emissions system, also impacting mileage.

Change Your Air Filter
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Change Your Air Filter

If you're driving an older vehicle, especially one with a carburetor, a dirty air filter can tax your engine and seriously affect mileage. Make sure it's not clogged. Air filters are cheap, and an important way to keep your engine clean.

Related: 18 Car Expenses That Are Really Worth the Money

Change Old Spark Plugs
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Change Old Spark Plugs

If spark plugs are corroded or misfiring for any reason, mileage will suffer. Replace them according to your vehicle's recommended maintenance schedule and your driving habits. When you replace the plugs, it's generally a good idea to replace the spark plug wires, too.

Keep Fuel Injectors Clean
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Keep Fuel Injectors Clean

Clogged or dirty fuel injectors will also tamp down mileage. If your vehicle experiences a lag in mileage, they may need to be cleaned professionally. Meantime, it might be worth it to occasionally add a fuel-injector cleaning product to your gas to stave off such problems.

Related: 12 Ways to Stop Wasting Money on Your Car

Change Oxygen Sensor
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Change Oxygen Sensor

A rough-idling engine, significantly bad mileage, and a vehicle's illuminated check engine light are all symptoms that you may need to change your oxygen sensor. Eventually it and other sensors do wear out.

Change Your Oil
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Change Your Oil

Old, sludgy, worn-out motor oil will hurt mileage. Keeping your vehicle's oil changed at the manufacturer's recommended interval will avoid this, and using the carmaker's recommended grade of oil is key and can improve mileage by up to 2%. (Just make sure you're not wasting money by changing oil more often than you must.) Switching to synthetic motor oil can also improve mileage. Typically synthetic oils cost more, but they also last longer. 

Related: Cheapest Oil Change: Jiffy Lube vs. Valvoline vs. Walmart and More

dad putting kids in car
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Combine Short Trips

A properly warmed-up engine runs more efficiently than one that just started cold. So take advantage of this by making one longer trip than several shorter trips.

Tesla charging
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Buy a Fuel-Efficient Vehicle

The last tip may be the most obvious, but is still worth pointing out. When shopping for a new car, consider its fuel efficiency. Depending on daily driving habits and conditions, a few extra miles per gallon can make a big difference. Small and lightweight cars often do best, but there are efficient hybrid and pure electric SUVs on the market, as well.

Related: 20 Electric Cars Cheaper Than a Tesla